A Pretentious Pedant on the Prequels

I recently finished reading Which Lie Did I Tell? by the now deceased (but still celebrated), screenwriter and author William Goldman and I am now an expert on the art and language of film. Actually, I wouldn’t claim to be after reading ten such books and really came away thinking even less of the film industry than I did before. The book was mostly not about the art and language of film but about screenwriting interspersed with showbiz gossip and either catty or complimentary comments about other figures in the industry. The writing was described on the cover as “funny” and “brilliant” but was generally “crass” and “shallow” and Goldman is the mind behind the generally wholesome The Princess Bride. While his work is not considered high-brow or avant-garde, he was behind very little of the muck Hollywood has wiped on our screens over the last fifty years. It was an interesting read if nothing else and despite all I’ve said, he knows the industry well and was a proven performer with a long career.

What it did remind me of was a video I watched some months ago critiquing reviews of the prequel Star Wars trilogy by RedLetterMedia and Chris Stuckmann in particular. This was by one Rick Worley (not sure if this is a pseudonym), and I have linked to below. He is considerably less popular than the channels he is critiquing which is not directly relevant to his critique but is not irrelevant either. Much like Goldman, he certainly seems to know filmmaking so none of what follows should be read as me doubting this and as with most topics on this blog — I claim no expertise myself!

I’ve mentioned the Plinkett reviews by RedLetterMedia in one previous post discussing the cultural legacy of the prequel trilogy over the last twenty years. RLM’s prequel video reviews became very popular and influential and no doubt inspired many future video reviewers on YouTube as did people like Doug Walker and James Rolfe. The original idea of YouTube was in the name so it is hardly surprising that people began sharing videos on what they are passionate about whether they were hobbyists or had genuine expertise. The RLM crew are undoubtedly into film and from what I understand, went to film school and have even made their own films — though I can’t speak to their quality. Their interests seem to be more in B-movie/horror and just weird films though their more popular video series is Half in the Bag which generally reviews mainstream releases.

Chris Stuckmann on the other hand, I know very little about. I think I had heard the name but I wouldn’t have even been able to recognise his face prior to watching the above video when it appeared in my feed. I understand his videos on the prequels are quite old (by YouTube standards), and that he has evolved as a content creator in both quality and popularity but that’s all I could tell you without looking into it further. I have to state all this because the latter is certainly the main target of the above video and I can only say that judging by this alone, I can’t offer much defence of Stuckmann’s reviews.

I will at least defend Stuckmann on the very first critique related to Jango Fett’s head not falling out of a helmet when he was decapitated near the end of Episode II. This is after Worley claims that the typical critics of the prequel trilogy have no valid points. It is odd that this is the very first example he goes to because if you asked me to pick one thing wrong with the prequels on the spot — this scene would have been furtherer from my mind than Jango’s was from his body. Worley shows that you do see the shadow of the head leaving the helmet but he has to show the scene to demonstrate this and I still didn’t notice until he replayed it in slow motion. Apparently I don’t watch high budget action/adventure films aimed at mainstream audiences carefully enough. In any case, this never bothered me as it was not lost on me why they wouldn’t show a graphic decapitation in a film mainly aimed at young children. But this first critique falls flat regardless.

Next, it is important to point out that people who make YouTube videos don’t have to be fluent in the “language” of film to say whether or not they liked a film. Nobody does. Especially not with high budget summer films that probably make more off merchandise and brand deals than the average film pulls in at the box office. Just looking behind Chris Stuckmann and all his video games and DVDs suggests he’s more of an enthusiast than a serious film critic reviewing 1960s French cinema. He doesn’t need a good understanding to say whether or not he thinks the films are good and his audience probably isn’t looking for much sophistication either.

When I first saw The Phantom Menace (a title which I thought was very clever), I really, really wanted to like the film. I was predisposed to like the film. It was the same with Attack of the Clones. The problem was that after re-watching both films multiple times, I realised that I just didn’t like them. By the time the third film came around, I saw it more out of obligation than any genuine excitement. This was a long while back now and I couldn’t well articulate why at the time. I went to see movies that looked good and generally I did or did not enjoy them. Sometimes I later came to appreciate certain films for what they were but more often than not, my initial impressions were right. Seeing the prequels again with more mature eyes only added to my disdain for them. The Plinkett reviews did a great (though certainly crude), job of explaining many of the shortcomings and more importantly — were entertaining.

The above video begins with some footage of Bob Dylan fans complaining about how “he’s changed” and “his old stuff was better.” This was not uncommon in my generation when any band some music snob liked had the audacity to achieve mainstream success. This is used to suggest that the Star Wars fans who hated the prequels don’t know what they’re talking about. The first problem with this is that Bob Dylan was and always has been terrible. The continued reverence for boomer generation musicians requires a separate post but beginning with this is hardly promising. The second is that it doesn’t work. Most people don’t necessarily dislike new things authors, musicians or filmmakers do. More often than not I enjoy the latter works more than the earlier ones as most artists tend to get better. The reason most people didn’t enjoy the prequels was because they weren’t very good and there are quite a number of reasons for this.

Most of the video focuses on nitpicking silly points and I can’t recall where he addressed any of the more substantive criticism. When for example, Plinkett kept cutting to one of the Trade Federation frog people and asking, “what’s wrong with your face?!” that he was… making a joke.  Then there is the way the RLM reviews are presented. Sure, I don’t like the subplot about kidnapping hookers or the crass language but how is this any worse than the degeneracy found in more celebrated cinema that Worley appreciates? There are cleaner cuts on YouTube that retain the core of what is being said without the creepy subplot.

I don’t want to go through this video point by point and offer rebuttals because on a number I wouldn’t necessarily disagree and others are simply irrelevant. This is hardly a comprehensive video covering ALL the problems at least where RedLetterMedia is concerned. The creator is more concerned with turning up his nose at Stuckmann, RLM and other more popular YouTubers than offering a proper critique of their videos.

Something else I do want to mention is how he often shows side by side shots of older films and a similar shot paying homage in one of the prequels or another more recent film. That parts of the prequels used similar shots from the original trilogy, Metropolis or some spaghetti western doesn’t mean the moves are good. He also shows clips of George Lucas talking about techniques he used from silent film along with some examples. The problem with this is these are not silent films and so using these techniques doesn’t necessarily add to their quality. Nor does understanding these homages, techniques and references make the films any better. If I made a film that copied famous shots or iconic scenes from films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and 2001: A Space Odyssey, would that automatically make my film good?

I want to come back to where I began and restate that I have no doubt this guy knows his cinema. I also don’t doubt he knows it much better than Stuckmann, RLM and most other YouTube reviewers he considers beneath him. That said, none of what he covers here demonstrates that the prequels are misunderstood by people who dislike them and generally speaking, if you have to make long videos on why something considered bad is actually good then you’re more likely to be the one that’s mistaken. That RLM has actually been watched, mentioned and is generally known about by many in the film industry isn’t a small thing either. Worley’s modest audience in comparison with the people he criticises has got to grind his gears and this comes through in the overall tone of the video. Still, it is an interesting video.

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